Where: Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St. in Lawrenceville.
When: Through Aug. 30
Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets: $30 to $65
More Info: www.auroratheatre.com
Atlanta actors Naima and Eugene Russell remember the first time they met each other. Both were audience members at the taping of a TV show.
“He was sitting right behind me, and he kept butting into my conversations,” Naima said. “We found out that we knew a lot of the same people and really hit it off, and we started hanging out … the rest is history.”
Naima and Eugene have been married now for seven years and are also the proud parents of a 17-month-old little girl. They said sharing a love for acting and performing is a big part of what drew them together, but the two have only shared the stage during one production — until now.
The couple will hit the stage together for the second time during Aurora Theatre’s 20th Anniversary Peach State Federal Credit Union Signature Series opener “Memphis,” playing through Aug. 30.
A co-production with Theatrical Outfit, the musical is lead by three of the regions top arts leaders, with Theatrical Outfit Artistic Director Tom Key directing, Aurora Theatre Co-Founder and Associate Producer Ann-Carol Pence as musical director and choreography by Ballethnic Dance Company Artistic Director Waverly Lucas.
The show is set during the turbulent 1950s in Memphis, telling the story of R&B DJ Huey Calhoun (Travis Smith), who is drawn by the beats of Beale Street to the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. The white DJ falls in love with a soulful black singer, Felicia Farrell (Naima Carter Russell) breaking racial barriers and igniting a cultural revolution.
Naima describes her character, Felicia, as passionate and full of spice.
“She has really big dreams, that I’m not sure she thinks are going to come true at the start of the show, but she sees an opportunity in Huey and she goes for it,” Naima said. “She pours herself into her music and also into this relationship. She’s trying to have both and, as Tom Key likes to say.”
Eugene plays the role of Gator, who doesn’t speak for most of the show, but the actor is keeping mum about specifics.
“There’s a reason, and when people come to see the show, they’ll understand why,” he said, adding that audiences can expect it to be emotional and powerful.
He said his favorite aspect of the role is that it challenges him to listen, which he says is a vital part of acting.
“The best acting is simply reacting, which means listening for an actor is crucial anyway. I love the challenge of listening and staying engaged and into the scene and listening intensely,” Eugene said. “It allows me to take in what’s going on and gives me what I think is a unique perspective of the play because I’m just listening to everybody.”
A theme throughout the show that touches Naima, is finding your voice — many of the characters are fighting to find what really makes their soul speak, including Felicia.
“In the world that she’s living in as an African American woman, and also as a woman in a relationship, her relationship with family members,” Naima said. “She’s really fighting for her voice.”
The musical is relatable on multiple levels, and even though it’s set in the ’50s, modern audiences will be able to find a connection, according to Eugene.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the same things are happening just in different ways,” he said. “While we have come a long way, sometimes we need art to be that mirror that says, ‘Hey, we have come a long way, but look at all the ways we haven’t changed.’”
He also said the audience will be able to relate on an artistic level through the common thread that ties all of the characters together, music.
“It all centers around music, and the ability of music to break barriers and to be that common ground,” Eugene said.
Out of the 25 numbers in the show, not including the curtain call, Naima said it’s hard to pick a favorite because it changes each night. She said she enjoys the challenging harmonies and passion of “Memphis Lives In Me” and one of her favorites to sing is “Colored Woman.”
“It’s so rich, I mean technically it’s challenging, but the lyrics are just amazing, and they speak to what a lot of black woman still feel today,” she said.
Naima said “Memphis” musically brings a little something everyone, from soul, blues and R&B to rock ‘n’ roll, country and bluegrass.
“Everything that made that time period so amazing. It’s the birth of rock n’ roll,” she said. “There’s so much singing and so much dancing. It’s gonna blow your socks off, and it’s fun.”
“Memphis” the musical will be presented at Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville through Aug. 30, with tickets available at tickets.auroratheatre.com or by calling the Box Office at 678-226-6222.
The co-production will continue Sept. 10-20 at the Rialto Center for the Arts with tickets available online from Theatrical Outfit at theatricaloutfit.org or by phone 678-528-1500.